How do you feel about learning idioms? Sometimes I post idioms on my Facebook page and somebody asked me recently if it was important to learn them. So I’ve been thinking about this question over the last few days and here is my answer.
First, what is an idiom? An idiom is a phrase that might not be immediately understood. Usually it can't be translated into another language word for word either. For example:
It's raining cats and dogs = it's raining heavily.
It’s not my cup of tea = I don’t like it much or I’m not interested in it.
Idioms can be fun and interesting to learn! They can be fun to use as well. And if you enjoy writing, idioms can make your work more colourful. This is why I occasionally post them on Facebook and on my blog. I know a lot of people like them.
But is it important to learn them? Some idioms are extremely common and should be learnt to improve understanding. However, it’s totally possible to communicate without using idioms. So perhaps their value depends on your level and your reasons for learning English.
If you’re a beginner, I think that there are more important things to learn. You should focus on basic vocabulary and grammar structures. If you want to learn just a few idioms for fun, that’s OK, but it isn’t necessary.
However, maybe you’re advanced and you want to expand your vocabulary further. Perhaps you want to sound more natural or understand films or books more easily. Then maybe it’s a good idea to learn some idioms.
However, please be careful how you use them. Maybe you think that you sound natural if you use idioms but in fact you might actually sound less natural! If you get an idiom slightly wrong, or if you use it in the wrong context, the end result is very strange! If you say “it’s raining dogs and cats” instead of “it’s raining cats and dogs” it really doesn’t sound right!
It also sounds odd if you use too many idioms when you speak. I had a student recently who used an idiom in every second sentence but native speakers don’t speak like that. I also had a neighbour who had a favourite expression and he used it three times in every conversation, which became annoying after a while.
You should also think about who you are talking to or writing to. Idioms are not used very often in formal contexts, especially in formal writing such as academic texts or business letters. Additionally, if you’re talking to non-native speakers, they might not understand you if you use a lot of advanced idioms and vocabulary.
It’s also important to be aware that some idioms are a lot more common than others. English learners love saying “it’s raining cats and dogs” but actually, I don’t hear native speakers use it that often. “Better late than never” or “long time no see” are probably more common.
So how should you learn idioms if you've decided that you would like to? Here are some suggestions:
1. Learn idioms in the same way as you would learn other vocabulary. When you read something or watch a movie, you might see or hear a new word or idiom. Use a dictionary or Google to find out what it means.
2. Ask yourself if it’s common or useful. Are you likely to hear it again or want to use it? If you hear an idiom a few times in conversation, then you know it’s useful.
3. If you think it’s useful, write it down so you can remember it and review it later.
4. Make sure you pay attention to the context that the idiom is used in so you know how to use it correctly.
5. Don’t try to learn too many idioms all at once. You’ll forget them or mix them up. Just learn one or two at a time.
You can find some idioms on this website by clicking here.
If you would like to know how to improve your vocabulary and how to remember new words, I wrote this e-book for you:
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